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Thursday, 12 March 2009
Page: 2510


Mr CRAIG THOMSON (1:18 PM) —When I was last speaking on the Social Security and Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Commonwealth Seniors Health Card) Bill 2009, I pointed out the stark contrast between the opposition and the government in relation to the way we have treated seniors, pensioners and carers. The position we have had from this government is one where we have made positive and genuine contributions to their wellbeing, knowing that they have been doing it tough in the economic climate that we are in. This is in stark contrast to the position that we have had from the opposition benches. There was the confected anger some months ago demanding that pensions be increased, that ‘something had to be done about the pensions’ et cetera, continually going on, trying to make a cheap political point.

In fact, with the passing of time we can see that it was a desperate last gasp from the former Leader of the Opposition to try and hold onto his position, and that was all it was. There was nothing more to it than that at all. What we have seen since that time and since the passing of that particular opposition leader—they have moved on to another one—is that the support that was there initially for the government’s stimulus package in October, which provided some welcome relief to pensioners and carers, has been walked away from by the opposition. It is suddenly something that is no longer good. It started as a position of support. They then got to a position where they had some doubts about it, and they have ended up in a position where they are just outright opposed to the stimulus package that was introduced.

On this side, we are firmly there with seniors. We are firmly there supporting seniors and making sure that they are looked after in our communities, because they play such an important role in our communities. When I was speaking last time, I was going through some of the important roles that they play in my community in Dobell and just how important they are for the community there on the Central Coast. I mentioned the important role that the Toukley Senior Citizens Centre plays. That was the largest senior citizens centre group in the Southern Hemisphere and had at its height around 6,000 members. Today it has slightly less than that, but it is a tremendous senior citizens centre where people are involved in all sorts of community activities, keeping their minds lively but also contributing positively to the community at Toukley and on the Central Coast.

From about the age of 17, I have been actively involved in Meals on Wheels. While I was 17 and doing it, the majority of people who have been involved in Meals on Wheels are, again, seniors. They are older Australians who in most cases are no longer working, and they make a tremendous and active contribution to the wellbeing of others in communities all around Australia by giving up their time so that they can help those who need assistance more than themselves. It is a tremendous role that these senior citizens play. On the Central Coast we have no shortage of senior citizens who are involved in the Meals on Wheels organisation. It is something they should be congratulated on and admired for.

Seniors in my community also play a tremendous role in developing business and helping the local economy. The business enterprise centre, something that this government funded from the Commonwealth for the first time, is something the previous governments totally ignored even though they said they were for business and they were for small business. In my electorate, where small business employs vastly the highest numbers of people, the former government was found wanting in relation to its support for the business enterprise centre. Nonetheless, what we find at the business enterprise centre is that there is an extremely active program of mentoring. The mentoring that takes place comes from senior citizens in the community, many of whom have had extensive time in business, who are prepared to give up their time on a voluntary basis so that they can help contribute to growing businesses on the Central Coast. Businesses are the lifeblood of the economy in many regions around Australia, and particularly in my area. It is a vital contribution that they make.

Going to some points in the legislation, a key point of this legislation is that it enables income for seniors to be treated similarly. It is important that this takes place, that there is a similar assessment in relation to the way in which we treat people. If we look at the background of this Commonwealth Seniors Health Card, it was introduced in 1994. It was initially intended to assist those people who did not qualify for an age pension due to lack of residence qualifications or the value of their assets. In 1999 eligibility was based on an adjusted taxable income test to allow more people to qualify for the card. Adjusted taxable income comprises the following: taxable income, which includes superannuation income streams from untaxed sources such as defined benefit scheme pensions; net rental property losses; targeted foreign income; and employer provided fringe benefits. The current qualifying income limits for the cards are less than $50,000 a year for a single person and less than $80,000 a year for couples combined. Indexation of these income thresholds was abolished by the previous government in 1999.

The Seniors Health Card entitles the holder to discounts on prescription medicines through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, bulk-billing with participating doctors and reduced out-of-hospital medical expenses above the threshold set through the Medicare safety net. In some cases, the card also gives access to local, state and territory government and private provider concessions, such as discounted transport, education and recreation. At the Commonwealth level, cardholders are entitled to certain cash payments—notably the Seniors Concession Allowance, which was increased from March 2008 to $500 a year and is now at $514, paid quarterly, as part of the government’s delivery of its election commitments. This is a government that is delivering for seniors; a government that is delivering for pensioners. Cardholders also received an Economic Security Strategy payment in December 2008, valued at $1,400 for singles and $2,100 for couples combined.

We have legislation that is important to be passed. There is a stark contrast between the position of the government in relation to seniors, carers and pensioners and that of the opposition. We have the opposition adopting its policy based on party room politics as to where a particular argument will get them on the reshuffling and continuously moving opposition front bench—and as to which particular leader they are going to back this week. In contrast, on this side of the House we have government policy that firmly and clearly has the interests of pensioners, carers and seniors front and foremost in terms of the way in which we proceed on these issues. I commend the bill to the House.